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Our Man in the Vatican: Episode 1

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William Crawley | 12:16 UK time, Thursday, 18 February 2010

b00qzskt_178_100.jpgIf you missed the first episode of Our Man in the Vatican, which was screened last night, you can still catch it on the iPlayer or on the programme guide. The series gives a rare glimpse of the diplomatic work of the Vatican as the cameras follow Francis Campbell, the British Ambassador to the Holy See. Francis Campbell, originally from Newry, is the first Catholic to serve as the UK's Ambassador to the Vatican since the Reformation.

Many congratulations to my colleagues Stephen Douds and Cara O'Doherty, who produced and directed the series, and to Martin O'Brien, the associate producer. You can read Stephen's account of filming this series here, and Martin's discussion of Tony Blair's decision to break with tradition and send a Catholic ambassador to the Vatican here.

The following article, published in the Irish News, is by Martin O'Brien, who came up with the idea for the documentary.

For Francis Campbell, it's a long way from the family farm outside Rathfriland where he grew up in the Seventies to the majestic grandeur of the Sala Regia adjoining the Sistine Chapel where our behind the scenes story of a heady year in his life begins when he attends one of the red letter occasions in the Papal calendar, the Pope's New Year address to the Vatican diplomatic corps comprising representatives from almost 180 countries.

I will never forget where I was when the idea for an observational TV documentary about Ambassador Francis Campbell, United Kingdom Ambassador to the Holy See, struck me. I was in a plane five miles up in the sky over the Swiss Alps returning from Rome, where I had been on Sunday Sequence business, to Belfast at the end of April 2008 and thinking about the fascinating and quite unique job Francis does in such a remarkable place.

As Francis Campbell had explained to me in Rome a few days earlier the relationship between Britain and the Vatican is not sentimental and they certainly do not agree on everything. Nevertheless I was surprised to hear from Francis - as I think our audience will be over the next few weeks - the untold story of the remarkable degree of common interest and agreement there is between two of the world's oldest powers whose relationship was defined by prejudice and suspicion for many centuries from the Reformation to modern times.

On a host of issues including development aid, climate change, disarmament and inter-faith relations there is common interest between the UK and the Vatican and Britain regards the Holy See as one of the world's most important listening posts alongside institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.

That was evident to us as we followed Ambassador Campbell lobbying the Vatican on behalf of the UK in the run-up to the G8 Summit in Italy last July - one of the most fascinating sequences in our films, and as he and his tiny staff were stretched to the limit in the preparations for the visits to the Pope of Gordon Brown and the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.

Francis Campbell is a remarkable man in one of the most sensitive and important posts in the British Diplomatic Service. Articulate, engaging, still not forty, with razor sharp intellect, a disarming sense of humour and an encyclopaedic memory his prodigious work rate has resulted in the Foreign Office, in these financially stringent times, giving him a deputy ambassador towards the end of last year.

His dizzying if slightly unorthodox CV suggests further surprises in the future. A former seminarian in "the Wing" in St Malachy's College, Belfast one senses that the call to priesthood would not fall on deaf ears if it came again.

He joined the Foreign Office fast-stream and worked at the European Commission and the UN Security Council and was then transferred to 10 Downing Street - first as a policy advisor to the Prime Minister and then as Private Secretary. Then he was posted to Rome as First Secretary at the British Embassy to Italy before a sabbatical year as senior policy director with Amnesty International. In 2005 he made history by becoming the first Catholic to be appointed Ambassador to the Vatican since the Reformation. Then just thirty five he was the youngest of all Britain's ambassadors at the time of his appointment.

But those are not the only "firsts"! He was the first ambassador to be appointed by public competition because the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, thought the post should be advertised. He is also the first person from an Irish nationalist background to be a UK ambassador since Partition.

BBC's veteran Rome correspondent David Willey tells the programme: "I've known about four British ambassadors [to the Holy See] and it's absolutely clear to me that Francis Campbell is by far the best. He has succeeded in operating with a very small staff, and making Britain's presence felt inside the Vatican. He's a very clever man. It's a very tricky business trying to mix religion and politics, and he has succeeded very well - the Vatican has confidence in him as a representative of the British Government."

In tonight's programme Tony Blair describes the previous ban on Catholics heading up the British Embassy to the Vatican as "ridiculous", "stupid" and "discriminatory."

For a documentary as bold and as ambitious as this to succeed in getting to the heart and into the substance of what Ambassador Campbell does access at the highest level is the key. In the past year our small team has enjoyed a degree of access never granted by the Vatican and the Foreign Office before. That access is predicated on trust that the eventual portrayal is authentic, rounded and fair, an obligation I am confident we have discharged in what has been the most exciting project I have contributed to in my career in the BBC."


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